China-based publication Retail in Asia recently spoke to Stephen Jones, Director – China, Regional Chair, about Funan in Singapore.

With a background in retail design in Asia, Australia, the Middle East and Europe, Jones carried out the envisioning, masterplanning, architecture and interior design for this 62,000-square-meter project. Conceived as an experiential civic hub, the mixed-use development integrates public spaces, commercial functions and cultural facilities with its urban location. In keeping in line with the firm’s ethos of expanding and challenging the expectations of a multi-disciplinary architectural practice, the design acknowledges the rise in online shopping and the changing role of brick-and-mortar stores to deliver a new era of retail that maximizes engagement for a tech-savvy generation. 

In the interview, Jones provides a brief history of the site and holistic process that went into realizing this next-generation model for retail.

Read the entire Q+A below, or head over to Retail in Asia.

RiA : Funan is a very iconic place in the mind of Singaporeans, and part of the collective memory of the city. What is the history behind it?

Stephen: The Funan Centre was built in 1985 and was renamed Funan The IT Mall in 1997 to ride the tech wave and reflect its retail offering. By 2005 it had become Funan DigitaLife Mall, but maintained its tech-centric DNA.

CapitaLand in its plan to repurpose the building wanted to leverage on the special place that the mall occupies in people’s lives and at the same time turning into a mixed-use destination. CapitaLand assigned the project to Woods Bagot, that after a first assessment changed the plan from repurposing to actually rebuilding, keeping in mind the sentiment of people towards the building.

Woods Bagot held collaborative design charettes with key stakeholders including current and future tenants, potential shoppers and investors to explore alternative opportunities. The question at the centre of these exercises was: ‘How might we create an environment that encourages discovery, enticing people back time and again, a place for reflection and a place for evolution?’

Woods Bagot and Stephen, in particular, have always looked at architecture as a way of creating value for the community and always put people at the centre of their projects. Indeed, the first step was to understand how people perceived the building and how to leverage on this. After conducting focus groups, the team realized that there was a positive attachment to Funan and that the main challenge would have been to maintain the tech side of the mall as narrated by the people, yet transforming it into a mixed-use place.

Tech malls, computer malls are always attached to grey market and definitely not linked to the idea of luxury, but more towards a sense of community and meeting place. Stephen worked towards the preservation of the meanings, through a translation of the tech aspect into a “future-looking aspect,” in which technology would be built within the infrastructure and used to make people’s life easier. In doing so, the mall would still be linked to idea of digital, but instead of a place where technology is sold (there are retail stores of tech brands), a place where technology enhances the experience such as online to offline customer journey, technology engagement, digital signage, click-and-collect options.

Additionally, the level of attachment of the community as meeting place has been translated into transparent material, see-through structure reflecting connectivity among the different areas.

RiA : In which way the vision for the project matches your architectural philosophy?

Stephen: At Woods Bagot, we put people first, therefore our design practice is social and very much people-centric. Our main focus is urban design, especially city places and large-scale projects.

I have always promoted design as the process of creating places of value, that of course is economic and social, based on efficiency, calibrated on environmental impact, and more importantly, user benefits. Embracing the idea of design as functional art, the values above are merged with aesthetic values to create a space of value deliver benefits to the community.

RiA : How has the project evolved from the initial stage to the opening?

Stephen: Design process is a collaborative work among all the stakeholders, from CapitaLand to Woods Bagot and other partner consultants, from the tenants to the users, all of them contribute to shaping the final product.

CapitaLand had an ambitious creative agenda and they demo started to be brave in willing to push the limits to redefine a new lifestyle experience. They worked with Woods Bagot to meet the community’s needs and transform the mall into a mixed-use development project.

The design process was not easy, because the idea was to work on a structure that could be flexible. At a certain point, we also considered to make Funan the Centre Pompidou of Asia with changeable parts, but then the design went onto another direction.

The project as you see it, it is built on a tree of life. The Tree of Life design concept is the architectural centrepiece at the heart of Funan, around which Woods Bagot has created an efficient retail offering. The Tree of Life is a wooden and steel structure that rises through six storeys, from Basement 2 to Level 4 at the centre of Funan.

The Tree of Life is symbolic of the idea that creativity grows from collaboration. The roots of the tree rise from the earth and grow sustaining the building – reflected in the earthy tones on the exterior of Funan that shimmer and twist in the sun – and they reach out and connect with the community. The roots extend to different areas of the building which creative communities grow on its various platforms and in the office, co-working and co-living spaces above. On the rooftop an urban farm is symbolic of the top of the tree.

The Tree of Life represents a habitat for creativity, and this manifests in platforms up and down the tree, each one a flexible space that centres on a passion or hobby. Referred to as passion clusters, these centre around tech, fit, taste, craft, chic and play, and are destinations for people to come and engage in activities and experiences spanning retail, culture, learning and business, to express themselves and to showcase their creativity.

The Funan project presents some characteristics such as the fact that there is no atrium and this has an impact on rental price definition, which another real estate developer would not have accepted, however, CapitaLand prioritized creativity. Also, the use of space at Funan is very much tied to content. In defining the future of architecture, I find myself immersed in a new dimension where designing space implies envisioning the type of content that the canvas will host.

A building becomes in this sense a platform for curated content and designers might be involved in the creative process as part of the innovative approach into urban mixed-use development.

RiA : We have seen the Funan project being described with many attributes, city communication hub, (add other attributes) to name a few. How would you define it?

Stephen: All of them and more. Projects like this take around 3 years to settle down and assume a certain image in tenants’ and customers’ mind.

It is still a work-in-progress in terms of definition. Contrary to what I have been hearing, I do not think it sets the bar in Asia or the world for retail, as I believe that this project is so complex that it stands on its own. It embodies connectivity at all levels. It embodies convenience in terms of space orientation.

It is a very brave project in terms of design and aesthetics.

RiA : Funan also embodies the latest trends in terms of appealing to new generations and tech-savvy consumers. What are the aspects reflecting those trends?

Stephen: Yes, the notorious Millennials and Gen Z are definitely part of the target but not the only ones. Funan is a place for everyone. However, the more tech part has been designed thinking of Millennials and Gen Z as users.

You have features such as facial recognition, the idea of click-and-collect, the seamless experience between what is available online and offline within the Funan portfolio and experience, is an aspect Facial recognition office. Funan experience has been designed to engage and exchange, I would say. You have 20 different spaces such as curated studios and leisure destinations to build a community and we have used technology to curate the path for the users.

For example, there are facilities warehouse supporting that enables brands to ship directly from the city centre and customers can collect the products in the stores or using the pick-up offsite to optimize their time. All food concepts at Funan are also to take away with a dedicated counter offsite. In this way, Funan becomes part of people’s lives without entering it physically.

RiA: Your answer has a very strong sense of community. In terms of lifestyle for people experiencing the Funan, have you thought-out sustainability and wellness?

Stephen: Everything complies with sustainability and wellness. You breathe it through the design. Everything is functional and there for a reason, which ultimately is the user-benefit.

A green Lease will be implemented to ensure tenant’s continued involvement in achieving the energy savings committed during operation stage.

With a porous ground floor featuring semi-public space accessible by pedestrians, Funan is designed to be flexibly ventilated which saves on energy costs. The accessible space also encourages cycling, promoting greener transportation. This is further encouraged through the underground linkway that will connect to City Hall MRT. Fast-charge EV charging stations and electrical bike charging stations have also been included on site.

The environmental coatings (frit pattern) on the building’s glass filter the sunlight entering the building to reduce heat gain and save on air conditioning costs.

Computation fluid dynamics (aCFD) calculations were utilised to access prevailing winds and also rain direction through the year to help design rain coverage for human comfort. Rainwater will be harvested at the urban farm to irrigate the extensive greenery in the roof top garden and the urban farm.

RiA : Where did you take inspiration for the Funan project and where do you take inspiration for your project in general?

Stephen: For the Funan project, everything is built around the concept of the tree of life as the metaphor for organic growth and very much tied to city identity of Singapore as the garden city. Inspiration is embedded in the project and it is in continuous evolution. The fragmented atrium was an element that emerged during the design process, for instance.

If you ask me where I take inspiration from for my projects in general, I have the answer about where I do not take it from, images. When I start a new project, I start reading and working on concepts and ideas and the design process includes transforming those words into 3D artefacts.

More and more, architecture, for me, relates to content and value creation for the social community, meaning learning and development, and fitting into people’s lives.

Stephen carried out the envisioning, masterplanning, architecture and interior design 

for new integrated lifestyle destination Funan in Singapore, representing a new era in retail and civic hub mixed-use.

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